03 August 2020

The Walking Dead Duck

This evening Liberals will elect a new leader.

And about two weeks from now – likely Friday, August 14 – the new leader will take the oath of office and become the 38th first minister of Newfoundland and Labrador since it became self-governing (May 5, 1855) and the 14th Premier since Confederation in 1949.

Dwight Ball survived 1704 days.

That’s four years, seven months and 30 days.

55 months, 30 days.

Or barely more than a single term.

It is hard to remember a day of that very short tenure that Dwight Ball was not embroiled in a controversy.  The ones he did not make, he bungled, which made them far worse than they were.  The provincial government’s financial state is no better now that Ball is leaving than when he took office.  Arguably, it is worse.  

The House of Assembly is diminished in every respect compared to even the low point it was at when he took office and Ball leaves the Office of Premier itself diminished.  His was a spectacularly dysfunctional office from the start and it never got better.  Even single-celled organisms can learn but the relentless repetition of the same blunders in everything from staffing to how Ball and his office responded to events are the hallmark of Dwight Ball’s political career. Ball has been a zombie Premier, of sorts, one of the political walking dead.

The one thing Dwight Ball did accomplish is what he set out to do.  An early and enthusiastic supporter of Muskrat Falls – he lies about this all the time in public – Ball ensured that, as he committed in September 2015, the project would be completed regardless of cost.  It will be. 

Ball also continued the province on the strategic course it has been on since 2006 or thereabouts.  This is the course that has produced government financial crises in 2008, 2013, and almost continuously since 2015.

Truthfully, Ball actually did more than just mind the tiller on the course previously set. Ball not only continued the trajectory but reinforced it.  After all, this is a guy who in 2015 claimed he wanted to end the government’s dependence on oil royalties.  Yet, within 18 months of taking office, Ball proudly announced that he wanted to double oil production by 2030.

The thing about Dwight Ball we should note as he finally leaves the Premier’s Office is that even had he wanted to do something other than warm the tall chair in the cabinet room, Ball would have had problems doing it. 

Both his caucus and popular opinion across the province did not support any change to the course the provincial government is on.  They still don’t. The Consensus in the province among the opinion classes is that we must stay the course but get someone else to pay for it.  No one else will pay so we will face a problem at some point in the near future. The new Premier will face precisely the same fundamental political problem no matter whether it is John Abbott or Andrew Furey who succeeds Ball.

Either of them can change that Consensus if they try.  What will be more problematic are the sorts of political constraints Ball and his many predecessors since 2010 placed on themselves. Each of them from Kathy Dunderdale onwards entered office with questions about their leadership.  Ball didn’t, actually, until he blew himself up with the Ed Martin fiasco in April 2016.  But once the public turned on him at that point, Ball could never command the loyalty of anyone in his caucus.  He faced a perpetual doubt about his leadership.  That dogged the entire government and almost cost the Liberals the 2019 election.

The new Liberal leader will have comparable questions if they seem to be short-timers. There’s a fairy tale going around these days, which, like all the other fairy tales about solutions to our problem or democratic “reform” or what have you are based entirely on assumptions that have nothing to do with how our political system actually works.  The fairy tale is that what we need is someone to get elected who is beholden to no one and who isn’t interested in getting re-elected.  That person will then do what is needed.

This idea rests on a number of qualities that make it popular locally.  First, it is authoritarian, which is always a popular feature of local political culture.  Second, it scapegoats the politicians and absolves the voters, who see themselves as subjects of government not masters of their own destiny. 

Third, it assumes the Premier acts alone or can act without any constraints on him.  The reality, as Archie Brown explained recently, is quite different.  In parliamentary democracies, even one like Newfoundland and Labrador with a preference for the political strongman, political decisions are taken by a group.  Both constitutionally and in practical politics, Premiers must have the support of their colleagues in cabinet and in caucus in order to do anything. 

What’s more, the Premier who starts his term in office by announcing the date of his resignation signals his ambitious successors to start their election campaigns.  Everyone else will become pre-occupied with speculation about the pending leadership race.  And the politicians in the caucus all of whom hope to be re-elected will ensure that nothing happens to jeopardize it. 

This is precisely the lowest-common-denominator politics that marked  Kathy Dunderdale and each of her successors including Dwight Ball.  The Premier who does not want to get re-elected is a lame-duck from the moment he lays down the Bible from swearing the oath of allegiance.

So, when you watch the news tonight – both NTV and CBC will carry the Liberal decision live – pay close attention to the winner’s victory speech.  It may contain a clue as to what we may be in for.  Will there be change?  Will we get a lame duck?    Will we get another zombie?  Or will we get a walking dead duck?